World Moto, the company we last covered when it released an ad-friendly meter for the world’s motorcycle taxis, has developed another motorcycle innovation: so-called "Wheelies," a technology that transforms wheels into screens. "The technology has the potential to turn essentially any wheel in the world into a brilliant, full-color billboard or video screen," CEO Paul Giles tells Fast Company. It’s best seen to be believed, so click on the video below.
World Moto CTO Chris Ziomkowski first got the idea for Wheelies while watching a Star Wars film several years ago. The image of a spinning lightsaber set him thinking about the phenomenon called "persistence of vision," whereby static patterns can combine to create the illusion of motion (it’s the phenomenon behind the magic of movies). He began to wonder whether persistence of vision could be exploited to great effect with spinning wheels.
It turned out that it could. World Moto debuted Wheelies over the weekend at the Sign Asia Expo in Thailand, where the company’s operations are based. A Wheelie consists of a wheel with 53 LEDs on each of the wheel’s eight blades. "Basically you have to track where the wheel is and at any given time have to know the exact position of each blade," Ziomkowski explains. "Then you have to light the LEDs based on what you want the picture to be, and you have to do that very fast."
The technology essentially invents a new kind of screen—and one that’s potentially ubiquitous. The tech could work "on any wheel in the world," says Giles. "Basically, anything that’s spinning." World Moto began to act on the idea about 18 months ago, moving rapidly into limited production and testing. The company hopes to first partner with a brand to roll out an advertising campaign on a fleet of vehicles in the coming months. Once World Moto manages to drum up a broader interest—something they seem very confident about—they will move ahead with larger-scale production for consumers. They expect to start seeing revenue in late 2013 or early 2014.
"When we drive around with the Wheelies, people immediately turn and look at it with their mouths open," says Giles. "It’s beyond a ‘wow’ factor—it’s almost into the ‘holy shit’ factor. They immediately ask us how much is that, and where can I buy it?" (There isn’t a definitive answer to the cost question yet; asked whether the Wheelies might cost over $1,000, Giles replied it would "depend on the size." He added that the "first version of any product is never the cheapest.")
The current version of the Wheelie the team has produced can show 30-second videos on loop. They say, though, that future versions could be able to "stream video from anywhere" and play clips or movies of unbounded length. Currently, a web application is used to manage the content that streams to the wheel.
Beyond the initial coolness factor, why might someone shell out a grand or more for such a gizmo? Giles points to a couple of reasons. Small business owners could rent out space on a wheel (or blast advertisements on Wheelies of their own). And for the sort of person who is inclined to give their bike a name and a gender, Giles says that the tech "gives their bike a face, sort of like an avatar." He points to people who already decorate their bikes with fancy mirrors or adornments for tail pipes. "Guys do it to impress women, or to impress whoever they’re sexually attracted to. People just enjoy doing these things."
And of course, fans of Tron may deem the purchase obligatory. But whether these segments add up to enough of a market to make Wheelies more than a body-shop conversation piece remains to be seen.